fiction

Into the Pines (Part 1)

Her name was Jude, thank you very much. No, not Judy, like Auntie Sherri insisted on calling her, and certainly not Judith, like her mother called her when she was angry. Just Jude, plain and simple. Yes, Jude like the boy’s name; yes, Jude like one of those obscure books in the Bible that no one but a preacher had ever read.

Well, at least it was easy to spell.

She pulled on her Yukon hat and took a moment to marvel at herself in the mirror… or what she could see of herself. The hat covered the top half of her eyes but she smiled proudly anyway. Dad had been looking for his trusty Yukon hat for awhile and Jude had found it covered in dirt and worms after their massive golden retriever, Bear, buried it in the garden. She was going to give it back. Eventually.

“Come on, Bear. It’s time to get going.” He was still fast asleep on her bed. He opened one eye and let out a massive yawn before flopping over onto his back.

“Get up, you lazy dog! We gotta get going!” When he simply huffed, she grabbed at his collar. He cried like he was in pain, but Jude rolled her eyes. She knew just as well as Bear did that he was perfectly fine and just being difficult. At last, the annoyance of having a collar dig into his neck seemed to overtake his desire to keep sleeping, so he rolled off the bed, his slobbery face grazing Jude’s leg. And with mixed fear and excitement, she grabbed the satchel she had packed the night before, drew open the window, pushed Bear’s gangly body through, and jumped out behind him.

As she stepped out, she knew it wasn’t quite cold enough for a fur hat. But today, she needed it. Because today, she was going to the Pines.

Mom’s voice echoed in her mind as she walked sheepishly towards the edge of town: The Pines are no place for a little girl. The Pines are no place for a little girl. Jude ignored the voice but held just a little tighter to Bear anyway.

“It’s okay, Bear. We’ll find it. It’s out there somewhere” she whispered, much more to herself than to Bear.

It was Mom’s cardinal rule: never, ever go to the Pines. It was every Hedgegrove resident’s cardinal rule. Of course, the Pines were just pine trees. It was just a deep, thick forest, nothing more or less. One might get lost… one might meet pirates… one might run into a bear…  But at their core, each resident felt something more than that… a strange, inexplicable, but utterly undeniable feeling that they were not welcome there, that to leave the village might upset a kind of fragile alliance with the forest.

The people of Hedgegrove did all that they could to hold the ancient empire at bay. But every now and then, roots would pop up in the street or snake through cracks in building floors and shake foundations. Sometimes, it seemed less as though they grew over time and more like that sprouted ferociously out of the ground over night as the Hedgegrovers slept, just so that the village folk knew they were still quite at the mercy of the trees.

Jude stood at the edge of Hedgegrove and looked up at the trees which seemed to stretch all the way to the clouds. Until now, she had not noticed how far her feet had carried her. She had been too preoccupied with her mission to notice. But she stood, frozen at the edge of the Pines in the one opening in the hedge, letting the grandness wash over her.

And for the first time, she began to understand why the Hedgegrovers so deeply feared the forest. The branches were woven so tightly they appeared like clasped hands which might grab her. The forest had a silence to it which was never truly silent, peppered with the chirps of unknown birds and insects… occasional ominous growls… surely, that strange cry was just an animal and not a banshee…

Bear nuzzled closer to her and Jude patted his head in reassurance.

“We need to do this, Bear,” She said with resolve. “If it’s really out there, we need it.”

There were whispers… whispers of a pond with water that could heal any illness. And if there was any chance that the pond was real, Jude was going to find it.

There were also rumors of ominous forces and faerie life… Those few brave enough to enter the Pines, they said, never returned the same. They kept silent about their ventures. Rumors had it that… strange fates befell those who dared brave the embrace of the thickets. Odd accidents, early deaths, curious behaviors… some even said they went mad.

But those were just rumors…

And before she could hear another ominous shriek, Jude grabbed tight to Bear’s collar and tore through the first rows of thickets. The pine needles and thorns pressed into her skin, but she blazed on anyway. And when at last she found herself and Bear in a clear spot, the thickets behind her seemed entirely untouched, as though they had closed behind her.

She opened up her satchel and pulled out the knife and slipped it into her belt. Bear gave her a nervous look, but she scratched his chin.

“It’ll just make it easier to get through the thickets.” This seemed to do little to ease Bear and he nuzzled even closer to her with a little cry. Jude tried to keep confidence. But it began to dawn on her that she had no idea which direction to turn or how thick the forest was or if the pond was even real. But as she thought of the Amalia… laying in bed, pale and silent… Jude picked a direction and began walking and Bear kept alert, clearly afraid but determined not to leave Jude’s side. She needed him to be brave right now.

It’s okay, Amalia… she thought. I’ll find it… If the doctors can’t make you better, I will… I promise.

fiction

The Other Son

His cigarette smoke joined the dull morning sky. The sun shined from some imperceptible point behind the clouds as the light refracted evenly across the mist. Mornings in Palm Bay were usually like this: gray and quiet. And at the diner, they were always quiet of customers.

Chop the fruit. Chop the vegetables. Turn on the ovens. Cross his fingers and hope that the warmer would survive another day. Unlock the front door. Write a new special. This used to be Cal’s job. This used to be Cal’s job.

He went to light another cigarette until he heard the rusted bell at the door and hastened to put it away.

“Mornin’!” Andy remarked with a half-toothed smile. He was late. As usual.

“Morning.” Micah growled. “Just go get the grill prepped, okay? And be here at 10:00 tomorrow!

“Sure thing, Mikey.” Andy laughed. Micah rolled his eye and balled his hand into a fist. But he didn’t even bother to correct Andy regarding his name anymore. He just stepped outside and lit another cigarette.

It certainly wasn’t as though Micah missed his brother. Just like Andy, Cal had been late for shifts, showed up wasted on a few occasions, and back-talked and disrespected Micah’s authority. But… even Micah couldn’t deny that Cal at least had known the business. Andy just straight-up had no sense of timeliness.

That’s what happens when you hire someone out of retirement, Dad. Micah thought bitterly. It was going to be another ten hour day for him, until they could hire extra help. But a town of 1,000 had a pretty limited labor market.

They only had one car now, thanks to Cal’s little excursion. So his dad had to walk few miles (Ubers were in short supply in Palm Bay) and probably wouldn’t be there for another half hour. So be it. If Micah was going to open and close, then he thought he at least deserved to take the car. He carried the weight of this place, after all. He kept the place from closing down after Cal…

Micah desperately needed another smoke thinking about the whole thing but he heard the bell on the door and didn’t trust Andy to pay attention to it. And, as Micah had expected, Andy was still lazily prepping the grill.

“Morning,” Micah said gruffly to the old fisherman. “Just the usual, Isaac?”

“You got it! To go today, though,” he said. Micah wrote up a ticket for him.

“Andy! A number four to go!” He yelled behind him. “That’ll be $8.75.”

“Jacking your prices on me again?” Isaac said it good-naturedly, but Micah’s eyes flared.

He’s a customer. He told himself. Keep cool. Keep cool. 

“Gotta do whatcha gotta do to stay in business, Isaac,” Micah replied, forcing the change into his hand. Thank God there wasn’t much competition for them. Micah and his dad knew they probably wouldn’t have lasted if there had been. By the time Andy finally finished, Micah was quite relieved to give Isaac his food and send him on his way.

Micah checked the time periodically. 11:00. 11:30. 12:00. Usually, Dad was here by around 11:00.

He tried calling his dad several times, but nothing. Thankfully (or unthankfully, based on the limited revenue they would get for the day) few enough customers came that he and Andy managed to keep things going at a moderately reasonable speed through lunch. Micah took over the grill, and for once, Andy’s inability to move through things quickly proved an asset in keeping Micah from becoming too overwhelmed.

4:00. 4:30. 5:00. Dinnertime was starting; things were getting busier again. Where the hell was Dad?

“Micah,” Andy had left the front.

“What?” Micah responded, vigorously chopping some avocado.

“Your dad just called,” Andy sounded speechless.

It was just one too many points of irritation. Micah slammed down his knife. “Well he’d better be sitting in a fucking hospital bed if he’s not on his way!”

Andy continued, a little shaken but an inexplicable excitement still swelling in his eyes. “He said to close up for the rest of the day and to come home for a party. Your… well… Cal came back!”

***

“He said he doesn’t wanna come,” Andy took another drink out of his Corona.

Abe looked hesitant. “You… well… what did he say… exactly?” There wasn’t much of a point of asking. If Abe had been honest, he hadn’t been expecting an entirely different reaction from Micah

“He said that he can’t lose a day’s business and that he just doesn’t have time, or something.” Andy left out a few of Micah’s other more colorful descriptions as to why he didn’t want to attend the festivities.

“I think I can be the judge of whether or not we can lose a day’s business,” Abe replied sternly. He glanced over at Cal, who was talking to his Aunt and working on his third burger. “I’ll… I’ll go talk to him. Let Cal know I’ll be back soon, okay?”

***

Sweat poured down his neck as he stood over the grill. He’d already burned himself a few times trying to keep pace between the customers in the restaurant and the take-out orders. Finally, he packaged up a few that he was sure were not correct but couldn’t care less and walked back to the counter to check for new customers.

His dad was standing in front of the register.

Micah took a deep breath and dug his fingers into his palms as he approached. “What can I get for you, Sir?”

“Micah, please – “

“Sir, I’m in a rather unfortunate position. You see, all of my employees decided not to come to work today, so I’m running a diner on my own,” Micah took a tone of aloofness and didn’t meet his father’s eyes. “I’m pretty slammed so I suggest you order and I will have it ready for you as soon as possible. I’m really quite busy.”

“Can we please talk outside?” Abe asked calmly.

“I have a diner to run,” Micah snarled. “Which no one else in this family seems to realize. Now what would you like, Sir?!

Abe turned around to face the small group of locals who were still waiting. “Folks, we’re closing up early tonight. Your food is on us and if you want more, come to 6330 Alvarado Way.” He turned back to Micah. “Now, after we finish theirs, we need to talk.”

Micah had already almost caught by then, but he was now wishing he hadn’t gone as quickly. With Dad’s help, it only took them ten minutes to churn out the rest of the out-standing orders.

“I have to go,” Micah growled, lighting up a cigarette as he locked the back door.

“Micah, please come celebrate with us,” Abe allowed himself a smile. Micah maintained immense focus on the smoke pouring in and out of his lungs. Abe continued. “Cal wants to see you. I know you’re still angry at him.”

Micah stopped and looked his Dad up and down. The corner of Micah’s lip curled upward slightly and he felt a desperate urge to extinguish his cigarette against his father’s neck.

“What the fuck do you want from me, Dad?!” He finally burst out. “I’m not understanding. What about all this shit could I possibly be angry about?!”

“I just want you to be with us, and – ”

“$10,000 and a Jeep…” Micah chuckled spitefully, blowing the smoke in his father’s direction before lighting a fresh cigarette off the smoldering one between his teeth. “And you let him go. You let the dirty, thieving son-of-a-bitch go.”

“Micah, listen…”Abe replied gently.

“No!” Micah burst out. “Don’t you get it?! That’s all I’ve ever done is listen! Well I’m not gonna fucking listen anymore!” He paused only to relish in the dismay spreading across his dad’s features. “All these years… Ever since I was a kid… All I ever do is slave away for your damn business! ‘Oh yes, Dad! I’ll work tonight, Dad!’ Every day I work my fucking ass off for you! And what do I get for it?!”

Abe closed his eyes and bowed his head slightly. He looked as though he was about to respond, but Micah continued.

“But then… then that little son-of-bitch comes home, after doing God knows what and going God knows where, and you decide you’re gonna shut down business for a day and throw him a fucking party?!” Micah shook and balled his hands into a fists. “Well you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t wanna take part in this little celebration, when frankly, that bastard oughta be arrested!”

“Micah, please listen to me for a moment,” Abe spoke quietly, and Micah saw a glisten in his father’s eyes. Micah felt another wave of rage pushing him to extinguish the cigarette against his dad’s skin, but Abe kept talking. “I’m so proud of you. Do you know that?”

“Oh please spare me your fucking compliments,” Micah snarled.

“Micah, everything I’ve built, everything that this is,” he indicated the silent diner, “it’s all yours. It’s all for you. I’ve been training you because… well, because I want you to be able to have it.”

Abe sighed as his son lit up yet another cigarette. “Micah, I love you so much. Anything you ask for – anything you want, you have everything! If you want something else, just ask! And you’ve felt like you’re slaving for it?”

Micah began to walk towards the car. “I really have to go,” he snarled, but his dad still followed him.

“Micah… please. He’s your brother, and he’s finally back.” A tear slipped down Abe’s cheek. “We’re a family again. Won’t you please be part of it, too?”

 

*Inspired by Luke 15:25-32.

fiction

Imaginary Friends

It took me 489 miles to realize that leaving California might not be the best way to deal with everything.

And it only took me driving one mile back towards home to realize I didn’t actually give a shit that it was a bad idea.

My plan was sound: get out of Oakland and just go live in some rural town in some other state. Or country. I really didn’t care which. Rent a room. Work as a waitress for a year or two. Then pick up and start over in the the next unplugged rural town over. And as long as I kept doing that… maybe if I just kept a move on… maybe if I went somewhere without a lot of people to begin with… I could trick myself into thinking that those people on the street were just people. Maybe I could pretend they were just like everyone else, just with weird, pale complexions and out-of-place clothes. Yeah. That makes, sense right? That’s a reasonably sane plan, right?

Well, whatever. It sounds a hell of a lot more sane than “I can see dead people.”

I looked down at my gas gage and found it hovering just above Empty so I decided that the next town I saw would be the one I stayed in. I wasn’t sure where I was, just that I was in Nevada. And I only knew that because driving at 95 miles an hour still felt like driving at 40.

I pulled off the road into a little town called Elko. I guess this is where I would make my life for the next year or so. Because why not? I mean, besides the fact that I had no job or place to live or money to live off of. Okay, so I didn’t think it out. Sue me. But I had to do something.

Tomorrow, I would look for jobs but it was almost one in the morning by the time I rolled up so I didn’t really have time to do it right then. And since this whole thing had been pretty impulsive, I didn’t have a whole lot of food, either, so I went to the nearest gas station. I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay in my car all night and never leave. Especially not at night, because that’s when I see them the most. I guess you don’t have to sleep at night when you’re dead. But I needed gas and I was hungry.

I looked around. It was a little jarring seeing an am/pm with a card table and slot machines. I saw an old guy playing at one of the slot machines, over and over again. I mean, it was like he was glued to the seat. For a moment, I thought nothing of it, but then I noticed his his opaque skin and ’50s style clothing.

Was this what it’d be like when I died? Would I just sit around and use my eternity in limbo to play slot machines?

I felt a strange urge to go talk to him and tell him break a gambling addiction he probably developed in life and go see the world. But I knew he wouldn’t talk to me. He wouldn’t notice me. He would just stare at his slot machine no matter how many times I yelled at him and then he would turn around and I’d think it was because he could hear me but it wouldn’t be. He’d just be going about his night as a miserable ghost, and I’d be going about my night as a miserable 18 year-old girl, marching towards the same fate.

You see, we can’t see them. And they can’t see us. That’s how it’s supposed to be, at least. Not for me. It started when I was little and kept telling my mom there was a little two year old boy who liked to hang out in my room and he just wouldn’t leave. I told her I didn’t like the way that the kid cried so much. It annoyed me. I didn’t like how he would never respond when I tried to tell him to go. After all, Mommy had told me that that was rude. She had told me you should listen to other people when they talk, and this little boy would never listen to me. And did I mention how much he cried?

I think my mom was convinced I’d suffered some kind of massive trauma. She kept poking around like she was trying to get me to say something and tried to get me to go see counselors. But I kept telling her I hadn’t had anything like that. I said that everything was fine except for not being able to sleep because of that kid’s crying and I couldn’t understand why she was so bothered by this. I just wanted her to get this kid to pay attention to me and shut up.

But instead, I was the one who learned to shut up. I learned how to lie, to my parents, to my friends, to myself. I told them that I didn’t see anything, that it was just my imaginary friends. I mean, in my own defense, that’s kind of what I assumed they were when I was that little. But my imaginary friends were mean. They never listened to me.

I picked up a pack of cheap granola bars and walked over to the counter. The cashier looked about 15 years old and was definitely not in a cheery mood. But then again, I probably wouldn’t be too cheery if I was working graveyard shift, either.

“That’ll be $5.25,” she said. She was looking somewhere past me, though. She looked… scared? That was kind of weird.

I turned around to see what she was looking at and she quickly darted her eyes down.

She had been looking at the ghost at the slot machine.

No. No she couldn’t have been. That wouldn’t make any sense. She was looking at the slot machine. Because they can’t see us. We can’t see them. Except for me.

But something held me there. Slowly, I got some cash out of my wallet. Her eyes kept darting back and forth between me and the slot machine behind me.

I mean… she couldn’t possibly. She couldn’t… that wouldn’t make any sense…

“Slot machines are fascinating,” I don’t know what compelled me to say that… but… I had to. If there was even a hope – even a chance –

She went bright red. “Oh it’s… it’s nothing… sorry, I’m just exhausted. 75 cents is your change,” she shoved it into my hands like she was trying to get me to go away. But the thought had seized me and I could not stop until I knew for sure. 

“You know, we don’t have slot machines in our gas stations in California.”

She nodded, again seeming as if she wanted me to go away.

“Can I ask you a weird question?” I said. I never would have done it. But I supposed that, if I wanted to, if I came off sounding like a nutjob, I could just leave Elko and head to a different town. This place seemed pretty miserable anyway.

She looked confused. “Um, yeah I guess.”

“Do you…” But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth. The last time I had asked anything like that was when I was little. My throat tightened and I felt my heart beat faster. This was bullshit. I was crazy. It was nothing. She saw nothing. Just like everyone else. I had to be overanalyzing the situation.

Then her eyes darted back to the ghost at the slot machine.

“You… you can see too?” I whispered, still afraid of sounding like a crazy person (and believe me, I’ve wondered on more than a few occasions if I actually am crazy).

Her eyes widened. “I… I don’t know what you mean…” But all the while, she tapped her fingers on the counter at an alarming rate.

We just stood there in suspended silence for awhile, neither of us really knowing how to keep the conversation going. Thankfully, aside from the ghost, there was only one other person in the gas station, an employee who was just shuffling stuff around on the shelves, not paying us any attention.

“Can… can you…?” She stuttered, seeming unable to continue.

“Old guy?” I finally forced out, quickly so I didn’t stop myself. “With ’50s clothes?”

Her eyes were so wide I thought they might pop out of their sockets. She nodded almost imperceptibly. I thought I might cry. But I don’t do that, so instead, I gave an awkward kind of laugh.

There was something crazy about it. Something crazy about, for the first time, knowing that there someone else, someone else who understood, someone else to validate that I actually wasn’t totally insane.

“I’m Emma,” I said, smiling.

“Sarah,” she replied, sounding shaky.

“Hey, when do you get off your shift?” I asked.

“20 minutes,” she said excitedly. “There’s a Denny’s a little ways up the road.”

I looked around. Elko wasn’t going to be such a bad place to live, after all.

fiction

Upon Their Arrival

They didn’t come as we expected, in gravity-defying ships from the sky.

Their first Sputnik-like apparatus fell out of the heavens like a meteor. No crop circles. No muffled radio signals. No stars that swelled at alarming rates until we realized they weren’t stars. It crashed down near our town in Nebraska, a suburb of Lincoln. Eyewitnesses – who somehow found their way into existence only after the first news crews noticed the ship – stuttered to explain it. Some said it was a light like the sun which flashed into spontaneous being. Others swore they saw little green men in spacesuits come waltzing out with alien machine guns.

They sent the last remaining SEAL Team to investigate it. When they banged on the capsule and no one answered, they destroyed it best they could. And found there was nothing inside.

It was space debris. It had to be. Some idiotic invention of our forefathers gone awry.

Were we not Man? Remolding the world in our own image, peeling away layer by layer the legacy of our simple-minded ancestors? Were we not in every way superior, in mind, in intellect, in society?

“Scientists are confident that the spacecraft was unmanned,” came the crackling voice of the news anchor, his image, pixelated. “It seems to – ” We never found out anything else from that broadcast because the one working TV in the town square cut out. Like it always did.

Our town found the first one a week a later. A little girl came crying to her mother one day that a “lightening doggy” had shocked her. More and more began to congregate around our homes, darting in and out of visibility. But it wasn’t until one – which seemed to be the master of the group – made us aware of its presence, publicly, that we began to think of them as aliens at all.

They weren’t humanoids. They were nothing like us, we thought. Animalistic bodies. And yet… they were strangely beautiful, in their own way. Pale, iridescent fur, slicked back like a black cat. It shimmied and rippled and exploded with color. Small sparks danced across it every few seconds. We all stared in wonder. They were so sweet, so unassuming.

But so powerful.

We assumed they were incapable of higher intelligence. Assumed we were in every way superior. Until one shimmied its way up to the power lines.

“– sightings of these apparatuses in Phoenix as well.” We stared at the creature. We stared at the town television, now functioning perfectly. We couldn’t decide which direction to wonder at.

The mayor soon sent a telegram to the office of the President that these creatures were not only unthreatening, but able to help us. And though we could not speak their language, strangely, they seemed to have a certain understanding of us; of our needs, of our habits, of even our words. And we loved them for it. Loved what they gave us, loved that they gifted us. Solving our energy crisis one town at a time.

More of their spacecrafts came, slowly. They crashed down at random, we thought. But they always landed outside of cities in crisis. They’d done their research on us, it seemed. But we didn’t notice. We didn’t ask why. Because we accepted their gifts that could save us. The more that came, the more we knew of their presence.

Then at some point, they brought with them something that could translate their language for us. But we didn’t notice. We didn’t ask why. Because they whispered all that which we wished to hear. And their voices echoed. They informed us that, if we could only put our faith in them, they could save us. Save us. Save us.

They came without guns and came without bombs. How could we fear them? Fear such beauty, fear such benevolence, fear such lovely creatures, over whom we – as man – were still in every way superior? Surely, were these creatures a threat, we would crush them.

To us, we were in complete control of the electric creatures.

To them, we were but frogs in pots. And they had patience when we did not.

Someone at the edge of town lost his mind and screamed that the water was getting hotter. We fixed his unbalanced brain with a shotgun. But we all envy him these days.

Because now… now the water is boiling.

*Inspired by The Twilight Zone and the soundtrack for Arrival

fiction

Napoleon

10:17 a.m. Almost twenty minutes late, but I don’t bother to speed. Mom will just have to deal with it.

If I thought you were on time, I would make more of an effort to get to our old house by 10:00. But I know that you’re not. I’ll pull up in the driveway and the only car there will be Mom’s Bug. Then, if Mom’s not sitting out on the porch tapping her foot, I’ll sit in the car and wait another ten minutes for you to pull up in your rusted pickup. Then we’ll knock and she’ll open the door and make some comment about how we’re “never on time.”

I mean, you do you still have the pickup, don’t you? You never were one to spend more money than you had to, but I suppose it could have broken beyond repair by now. Or maybe Amy got sick of you never being able to drive her and her friends places and you finally caved.

But probably not.

Still driving under the speed limit, I turn onto East Gabriel St. First house on the block, and I do a double take.

Gray. Steely, modern gray like my apartment. Not the chipping yellow I remember. It doesn’t match all the cute colorful houses on the block anymore. Some young, sexy real estate agent probably told Mom she should paint it, or maybe she just took it upon herself. Either way, I hate it.

Mom opens the front door before I even turn the car off. I roll my eyes. I can already tell she’s in a particularly testy mood this morning.

“Good morning,”  I mumble as I walk up the steps.

“Morning, Laura” she replies. She asks “how are you?” because she’s supposed to and I answer “good” because I’m supposed.

We walk in together. She mutters something under her breath about my tardiness that I don’t bother to listen to because I’m too busy looking around like a confused tourist. She’s repainted the inside of the house, too, this dull cream color. We stop in the kitchen where she’s replaced the old tile countertops with granite. That probably cost her a lot. It looks like she’s either sold or packed quite a bit of the furniture as well because the place feels empty.

“Well, since your brother’s not here yet, I guess I’ll wait to go run errands,” Mom huffs.

“Why’d you repaint the house?” I blurt out.

“No one’s going to want to buy a yellow house like that,” she snaps. “It was a disgusting color anyway. Why your father…” she trails off.

“Well, I’m gonna start going through my stuff.” I say. “You didn’t sell all my stuff while I was gone, did you, Mom?” I try to say it playfully.

“I’m getting rid of anything you don’t take” she’s looking down at her phone, at the clock I’m pretty sure. I glance at my phone, too. 10:24. I hope you get here soon…

I walk up the stairs. She replaced the railing, too. Whatever. She’s selling the house. She can do what she wants. That railing was pretty rickety… it probably needed… why’d she get a white one, though? It doesn’t work with the stupid cream walls.

I half expect that my old room’s going to be completely cleared out. But when I open the door, it doesn’t look like Mom has touched a thing yet. I glance at the window and feel an irrepressible urge to sneak out the window like I did when I was a kid and get out of this room and this house. But I don’t.

It’s the same quilt on the bed, the same walls, the same lamp, the same… everything. Frozen, untouched, and I wonder vaguely if Mom has even set foot in here since I moved to California.

And yet somehow… I feel an unshakeable sense of discomfort. It’s like I’m intruding, like I’m snooping around in a stranger’s home.

Reluctantly, I start to look through the drawers. Why Mom was so insistent that we both come here and get our stuff, I have no idea. I mean, we both got most of it when we moved out. But I find a few things when I open up the closet. Shirts I can’t pull off anymore, snow gear I don’t need anymore. Above my desk hangs a little ornate cross painting. I take it off the wall to look at it more closely.

I haven’t painted or been to church in a long time.

“You think Jesus will forgive you for being gone so long?” I whirl around and I can’t keep a smile off my face when I see your massive, burly form in the doorframe. “Because I’m not sure I do.”

“Drew!” I rush over to you. You give me a slightly bone-crushing hug.

“How are you, Laura?” You ask, tapping me on the head playfully.

“I’m doing well,” I reply. “How are you?”

Your beard’s quite a bit longer than it was last Christmas. Scruffier, too. “Good, good,” you answer. “How’s the fancy new job?”

But before I start talking, we hear Mom holler to us to come downstairs. You roll your eyes and we take our time walking back to the kitchen.

“So I’m listing the house tomorrow for $249,000,” Mom announces irritably. “I’m headed out now to run some errands. Take what you want. I’m done hoarding all your junk. Anything you don’t take goes to the Goodwill. I’ll text you if I have time to get dinner but I might have to go into the office later.”

She slams the door. I hear her car sputter for a moment, hear her muffled cursing, and hear the car drive away.

“Love you, too, Mom!” you chuckle darkly. I don’t respond. “Well, anyway,” you clap your hands together, “I got a surprise for you.” you say excitedly, trying and failing to keep a devious smile off your lips.

“Okay… should I be scared?”

“You gotta sit on the back porch.” It looks like Mom already got rid of the chairs on the back porch so we bring out two of the worn-out white kitchen chairs and a side table from the living room. You go back to your truck and come back with a brown paper bag.

“I figured… our last time back at this place, this would be as good a time as any…”

I look at you curiously and watch you pull two brandy glasses. Suddenly, I know exactly what you’re about to do and I instantly start laughing. “No… you… you didn’t –”

You beam at me triumphantly, pulling out a wax-sealed bottle of Marie Duffau Napoleon.

“Wow. How much did you have to drop for that, Drew?” I ask.

“Don’t ask such questions.” You take a swiss army knife out of your pocket and remove the wax seal with astonishing ease. Brandy always was your favorite and you pour us both a generous glass full.

I give you a smirk. You know I hate Brandy. For a brief moment back then, I thought I had tricked you into thinking I enjoyed it, that I could tolerate dark alcohol. I wanted you to think I was as tough as your friends. It was just you and me at home and you convinced me to go steal Mom and Dad’s expensive Napoleon out of the cabinet. They hadn’t bought it, I’m sure of it. It was probably a gift from one of Mom’s rich friends. It had sat and sat in our cabinet collecting dust. I kept saying that you could do it yourself, why should I do it for you?

“Laura, I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing this for you,” you kept insisting in true Ferris Bueller fashion.

You called me “lame” when I protested and the last thing any 15 year-old wants to be told by her cool 17 year-old brother is that she’s lame. So I did it.

It was the first scratching-the-surface-of-rebellious thing I ever did. And you were so proud of me for doing it and so proud of yourself for getting me to do it that instead of taking the bottle to your friends as I assumed you would, you said that I “should reap the rewards.” So we drank from our parents’ cheap wine glasses and “played adult” and mocked them.

“God, I got so sick that night…” I recall as I swish the brandy around.

“Oh I remember. And you only drank one glass,” you laugh mockingly.

“You know, I haven’t actually tried brandy since that night,” I confess. “I don’t drink much, really, aside from wine. There’s good wine in California.”

You snicker. “God, you’re turning into Mom.”

And I don’t know why, but my heart beats a bit faster when you make that joke. I oblige you with a grin that feels uncomfortable on my lips, but you don’t seem to notice.

“You know,” you change the subject, “this house could easily go for 35 to 45,000 more than she’s listing it at.”

“Really?”

“Oh yeah. This area?” You take another sip of your brandy. “I wish you’d visit more often, Laura. We all miss you.” This time, you put down your glass and actually look at me and I feel a distinct desire too look anywhere but into your eyes. So I glance back down at the dark liquid.

“Who’s ‘we all’?” I force a chuckle. “Just you, probably.”

To my surprise, you don’t respond. You take another swig of brandy.

“Maybe you, Amy and – well, you and Amy anyway –” I remark, “can fly out to Oakland for Thanksgiving or something.”

You roll your eyes affectionately. “Hey, you’re the one with the money and the fancy-ass job. You’re the one who can afford plane tickets and shit.”

“It’s really hard for me to get out of work.”

“Sure it is,” you give me a half-hearted smile. I really wish you would stop doing that. “I get it, though. I’d take sunny-ass California over this place any day.”

“Oakland really isn’t that sunny, Drew. It’s kinda cold and foggy all the time.”

“Hey, you do not get to complain about the cold,” you counter.

“How’s Amy doing, anyway?” I ask. “I miss her. She’ll be… what? 14 this year?”

You don’t answer me. Ever so quietly, you stare off into the backyard as though it were the endless horizon. Mom hasn’t torn the fences out yet. They’re pretty rotted, though.

“Did she… uh… like her Christmas gift?” I continue.

“Yeah, she loved it.” I notice you absentmindedly fidgeting at the ring on your finger as though it’s too tight. You stop and pour yourself another glass.

“We really fucked things up, didn’t we, Laura?” You say it so suddenly it takes me off guard. I tense up. But you’re still not looking at me. “You were smart to stay out of that commitment shit, Laura. Damn smart.”

“Well, I always was the smarter one,” I joke nervously. You snicker and choke on your brandy but give a shrug.

“It’s true, though,” you reply. “And you know it is.”

You take another swig, still staring off at that same imprecise spot in the backyard. “You did it, Laura. You knew what you wanted and you got the hell out of this shithole.”

I look down at my own glass of Napoleon and swish it around a bit, trying to convince myself to take a sip. Maybe it’s not as bad as I remember it.

“I hope Amy is like you,” you blurt out. “I hope when she’s older, she knows what she wants and gets the hell out.”

“Oh, don’t say that,” I answer quickly, a bit of sweat tickling my brow. Brandy always could get you to say things you’d regret. But I can’t seem to find any more to say to you.

“It’s fine,” you’re still not quite meeting my eyes and I’m glad that you aren’t. “If Amy turns out half as cool as you, then I’ll know there’s a God. Cause it sure wouldn’t be anything I did and it sure as hell wouldn’t be anything her mom did.”

I hear my phone buzz and seize the opportunity to check it.

“It’s from Mom.”

“Let me guess,” you sound almost entirely humorless this time. “She can’t grab dinner because she has ‘stuff at the office’? On a Saturday?”

“Laura. Working late tonight. Will not be home later. Don’t forget your stuff. xo Mom.

You take another swig, snickering darkly. “What do you say we drive the three hours to Burlington? And you actually stick around for a couple days? I’ll show you around, you can see Amy?”

Once again, I feel myself tensing. I can’t pinpoint why. “I… Drew, I have to work on Monday and I’m flying out tonight…”

“Oh bullshit,” you burst out. “You can do some stuff out of the office if you have to, and can you even tell me the last time you took a day off? And I know paying for a flight cancellation isn’t a big deal for miss big shot ‘Supply Chain Analyst,’ whatever the hell that even is.”

You’re right. I know you’re right. And I don’t know why didn’t tell you, but I actually budgeted to take Monday off, just in case I wound up getting held up for some reason. But all the same…

“Okay,” I hear myself say. You beam so brightly, I feel bad for my reluctance. “But I’m driving.”

“That’s fair. Now, are you gonna drink that or am I gonna have to down it for you?”

I look down at my glass, Finally, I take a sip. I choke and laugh. “Yup. Just as disgusting as I remember.”

*Inspired by the music of Bear’s Den, especially “Napoleon” and “New Jerusalem.” 

fiction

Men of Honor

We used to laugh and say that it was impossible to imagine Danny as an old man.

We laughed and called him “reckless.” Laughed and said he was “begging for death.” Laughed and called him “bachelor,” “the infinite youth.” The boy who was at once with every woman and never with a single one. Surely, gray would never pepper the scraggly blond head of my brother Danny.

Back then, back in our Oxford days, all of our lives were so very quiet. We marched slowly, calmly, and quietly towards business or law or Parliament. Danny enjoyed making a little noise along the road. He liked to rattle our bones a bit, push us a bit. But looking back at it now, it wasn’t really “noise.” Danny’s version of “the quiet life” just happened to look a little bit different from the rest of ours.

It was quiet to him, I think. But I suppose all lives begin so quiet. Our lives certainly did. As little boys, we played quietly in the creeks and listened to our mother yell at us. And though we looked exactly alike, somehow, Danny had a different sort of aura about him. An aura that demanded leadership and incited a sense of adventure in everyone he interacted with.

The first and loudest noise – though I didn’t realize then that it was noise – came from Dr. Kent. Danny and I were in his history class together. Dr. Kent was not the only one old man to contribute to the growing sea of noise, but his voice occupied the most space in our imaginations. So charismatically, he told us stories of the great warriors of old, of the adventure that is war, of the honor and glory that could be ours if we enlisted.

“You, young men,” he proclaimed, “have a chance that I do not. You have a chance to be men of honor.”

We sat, quiet, as we listened to our professor preach. Loudly, his lips bled bombastic stories of glory and honor and God and king and country. Quietly, we absorbed his fatherly “wisdom” and drank his words like fine wine. Dr. Kent’s words enthralled Danny the most out of any of us and they seemed to bring out something buried inside him, some secret desperation to be more than “the reckless boy.” Perhaps in battle, he could be dashing youth and man of honor.

“Enlist, Charlie,” he said to me. “We’ll do it together. We’ll fight together at the front for the glory of England.”

Quietly, I followed him. I always followed him my brother, good Danny. I thought war was our  time, our chance to shed winded youth and become a men of honor. And surely, if Danny believed the war righteous, we could trust him.

There was, even back then, something inside of me. Something I could not verbalize, that I could not admit to Danny and certainly could not admit to myself. I assured myself it was not fear… It couldn’t be fear… for “men of honor have the hearts of lions,” “men of honor have no fear.” And how I wanted to be a man of honor, so I stifled the feeling and I listened to Dr. Kent and the rest of the bearded old men.

“Men of honor die with honor, for even to die,” they all told us, “would be an awfully big adventure.”

When we told our father that we planned to enlist, he gave a curt nod, perhaps the greatest honor he had ever given Danny and me.

“I would expect nothing less from my sons,” he said, sounding strangely pleased with himself. “My boys will be men of honor.”

Danny spoke so many words sometimes that he began to sound quite like Dr. Kent. But I always listened intently. Soon, more voices joined Dr. Kent’s. “Fight for England! Be men of honor!”

And quietly, we followed. Followed old men who we assumed knew best, followed the officers we assumed were lion-hearted. Followed our families, our country, all the way to the front and down into trenches. But it seemed strange that the people we followed did not join us there.

Quiet indeed were all the uniform boys. Quiet indeed were we “men of honor.”

I no longer remember what “quiet” sounds like.

***

It always seemed so dark in the trenches, even in daylight. The civilians liked to call us “brave” and yet it seemed such an odd way to describe us when we spent so much time hiding in trenches, like little rats scavenging in the sewers of London.

I looked down at my boots which were a few inches deep in the mud and manure and I missed sewers.

A loud CRASH pierced my moment of quiet.

“GAAAAAS!!!” We heard the shriek and instinctively fumbled as quickly as we could for our gas masks.

Don’t panic. I thought to myself. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Stop and get down. Stop and get down. Stop and – CRASH!!!

Something fell and crashed down near us and I couldn’t tell what. I never knew what. I didn’t care what.

Shriek – commands – Danny, I think. That shriek sounded familiar. But I had to put it out of my thoughts while I scrambled.

Stop and get down. Stop and get down.

I found the rest of our unit. I found guns. And I aimed and I fired and I think I hit someone and I think it was someone that I was supposed to hit. I think. But I don’t know for sure.

I heard German shrieks, too. I only knew they were German because I heard one of them shouting in German. It sounded like German. But the sound of my own breath was so loud that I couldn’t say anything for sure. I never felt safe in masks. I feared I would suffocate. I feared the mustard gas would seep through some imperceptible crack in my mask and put its claws down my throat and into my lungs and there would be no escaping.

I chose to not think of my brother. That seemed to be the primary objective at the front: stop. get down. shoot. don’t think. Thinking is too much. If we thought for even a moment the noise of our own thoughts might drown us.

Suddenly, I saw a figure come scrambling around the corner, but I would never have known it was Danny if he hadn’t been shrieking. I could not see his face or his body behind the man dragging him, I could only hear his shrieks.

“Danny!” I cried out. But there was no reply as a few of our men forced his compromised face into a mask. I wanted to run to him but someone was holding me back. I couldn’t say who. We all looked the same in those damn masks.

I don’t remember that night very well, at least, not that night in particular. I remember flashes. I remember crashing and shrieking and seeing a boy without a leg or an arm that I think was a friend but I couldn’t tell at the time. It was a friend, I found out later. But there were many nights like that and they soon became indistinguishable from one another.

I met Danny later in the hospital ward. I looked into his boil-covered face as he coughed and spat and moaned.

“You’re going to be okay, Danny,” I said over and over and over. Even without the boils, as I looked in his now finely-etched face, I knew I would never have recognized him as Danny. How he looked so like an old man. Gray had begun to invade his blond hair, what was left of it. I wondered if I looked like that.

The officers told me I had to return to the front. Danny was asleep when I left and the nurses told me that he needed to rest and I’d see him once he recovered. They assured me that he would recover and I’d see him again. And I was naive and I trusted them. So I quietly marched back to the front.

***

I suppose I am lucky for ever seeing the other side of the trenches. That’s how I’m supposed to feel, at least.

It seems so odd the way that no one else can hear the noise. No one except my fellow servicemen. The civilians were grateful for the end of the war. I know it did wear heavily upon them all, too. But I look into their eyes and I find that there is something inside them that I can no longer discern, a quality of civilians that alienates me from them.

It seems strange to me. The way I can hear things that they cannot.

For a time, I assumed it was me. But I realize now that it was never I who could not understand. It was them, in their naivety. In their sweet, sickening naivety. They, who had sent us off for God knows why. And at night, as I sleep, in each cannon, each gunshot, each shell that explodes, I hear Danny’s youthful voice.

“Enlist, Charlie!” “Let’s enlist, Charlie!” “For the glory of England, Charlie!”

I will not describe it. I will not describe what it is to see him each night, to hear his voice, to watch –

There are nights when I see him and I awake and I shake and –

You see, for all the strife that exists in this world, no one can understand. Certainly not a professor or an officer. Only the boys who marched so quietly to the front at the command of our noisy superiors, and when we do see one another, if ever, the last subject any of us ever want to speak of is the front. Because our lives are noisy enough. We can’t speak of –

We still hear the guns ring in our ears and we still hear our bastard officers and professors and parents and families yelling at us to “BE MEN OF HONOR.”

I saw Dr. Kent one day in London, a few years after the war had ended. He asked me how I was. I said I was all right. He asked me how Danny was.

“Dead,” I said.

I rather liked the way he looked as if someone had punched him. “I am so sorry.” I did not reply. He looked up to the sky and away from my eyes and said in a disgustingly dignified sort of way “Danny… Danny died a man of honor.”

My vision of Dr. Kent was momentarily obscured with red as every lecture he had ever given rushed back into my consciousness, as I thought of his rhetoric which had pushed my brother and I and all the young boys to the brink of hell. How we had respected them, those wretched men who sent their own sons to die. My pulse suddenly roared across my ears so noisily. My heart raced and I felt blood rush to the tips of my fingers and my hands felt they might explode in irritation if I did not slap him. I imagined myself tackling him to the ground and disfiguring his facial bones and screaming at him to “fight like a man of honor” –

But instead, I nodded and I politely continued the conversation with my fists balled tight. We spoke of nothing, really. I refused to speak of anything of substance. I bid him “goodbye” and was about to leave, but I suddenly heard a chillingly familiar crash off in the distance.

No, not the crash of shells. Not the crash of shells… it’s not real it’s not real… the war is over the war is over it’s not real… the London street fills with noise it’s not real it’s not real the war is over remember the war something falls out of the sky “GAAAAAAS” shriek click BOOM “MASKS ON” where is my mask where is my mask I reach for it it’s not there where is my “CHARLIE GET UP CHARLIE” arms grabbing me I claw at them you won’t take me you won’t where’s my gun where’s my mask CRASH “STOP GET DOWN” so much noise where is Danny where is there he is he’s not wearing a mask DANNY MASK ON MASK ON he can’t hear me he needs to hear me where’s my mask “GAAAAAAS” “DANNY” click BOOM  –

***

Each night I lay my head down and I shake. There are nights when I lie awake and I cover my ears and it doesn’t help. There are nights when I lie awake and I curse the names of the old men like Dr. Kent and my father who betrayed their sons.

And there are still darker nights when I wonder if Danny was perhaps the lucky one.

He is free… free of them… free of noise… free of shells and gas and crashing… Danny lives a quiet life. How I long for that… long for quieter –

fiction

The Queen

Regina’s kingdom consisted of no more or less than the four beige walls of a studio apartment. She ran an isolationist country that could not be bothered with the petty affairs of other neighboring nations. The few subjects that visited the queen seldom waited for permission to do so. Rather, they unlocked the gates themselves, peeked their youthful bodies in, asked a question, and departed.

“Are you feeling okay, Regina?” asked a different one each day.

“Yes.” She replied from her throne on wheels.

“Good day.” And the one portal to the outside world closed just as it did every day.

It seemed an eternity since the king had passed. How the empire had mourned then. How Regina’s heirs had grieved so sincerely, it seemed. How those grown children had embraced Regina with such loving arms in her grief. How sweet they were to allow her to stay with them “as long as she needed.” How sweet her children were, how sweet their many words. How sweet was their desire to “help” Regina through this difficult season of life in any way they could. How sweet were they to make decisions on her behalf, how sweet were they to sort through the king’s possessions so Regina did not have to undergo such pain.

How sweet were they to begin the process of dividing the empire. Regina surely, in her  heartache and her oxygen tubes, could not be expected to rule such a large kingdom.

Her new palace was a quiet one. She lay on her daybed, never quite able to work the television. Not that it mattered. Her old palace had not even had a TV. So she lay. As she did each day. Reading King Lear for the nth time. She had asked her heirs to bring her more books. Her old palace had been filled with so many books that by the end, her daughter demanded they be rid of most of them.

“Mom,” she had ordered when she could stand protest no longer, “pick your five favorites to take with you and we’re going to toss the rest.”

“Don’t you speak to me like that!” Regina’s voice dissipated into the expanse of the hall. Helena was no longer paying attention and had already started out of the room.

The queen never talked of the night they arrived her new palace. She tried to seldom think of it, though that never seemed to work very well. But perhaps to her credit or perhaps to her age, she could at least no longer remember the details. Regina did not remember each of Helena’s individual wine-induced mutterings when her mother was feeling uncooperative. She did not remember (at least, not in detail) her son-in-law’s boisterous argument with the management when they informed him that the wine was not included with her Regina’s rent.

They came at holidays. Usually. The grandchildren visited. Sometimes. They swore that they cared for her. They rolled their eyes when she questioned their love. They swore that the queen was more to them than just the sum of her loosely-knit sinews that they believed might unravel in the wind.

A knock. And a moment later came forth one of her subjects.

“I just thought I’d stop by,” he smiled. Nikolas was a scrawny eighteen-year-old of five foot five, freshly hired and freshly pushed out the nest. All the subjects marveled at that little boy’s ability to perform the physically-demanding tasks of his job properly. They said he took Red Bull through an IV. They said his energy would soon diminish. They said he would soon grow weak and weary like all the rest. And the queen supposed they were right. She’d seen it happen to so many before. She’d watched the embers in their eyes go cold. She’d watched the callouses grow around their hearts as it became too draining to watch so many royals come and go.

But for now, Regina savored Nikolas’s wide-eyed wonder, pondering vaguely if there existed a way to bottle it.

“Hello, Nikolas,” she smiled a lazy kind of smile, one that tried but failed to reach the corners of her droopy eyes.

“How are you, Regina?” He asked.

“I can’t complain. How are you?”

He smiled, “I’m doing well. I’m trying to save money for – ” and it was the usual blaring noise of his radio which interrupted. That beeping which Regina supposed must haunt those caregivers in dreams. That aggressive and constant summons of many countries at once in need of his ever-strained assistance. And so he smiled. And departed.

Regina returned to her book.

“…we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.”

Regina sighed and looked out across the expanse of her kingdom and down at the fraying cover of the play. And wished she had happier story to read.

Dedicated to all the invisible Kings and Queens and to all the subjects who choose to see them.